‘It ought to feel squelchy’: plan to save drying-out Welsh peat uplands

Even in midsummer, the hills above the market city of Rhayader in mid-Wales must be so soggy {that a} stroll ends in unpleasantly damp climbing socks. “It ought to feel really squelchy here,” stated the National Trust’s Alan Kearsley-Evans. “Ten or 20 years ago you’d have been ankle deep. Now your feet stay dry.”

Kearsley-Evans is normal supervisor for a sprawling patch that features the well-known peaks of the Brecon Beacons and seashores of the Gower peninsula, however it’s his work attempting to assist restore the a lot much less acquainted peat uplands of Abergwesyn common that he believes could also be an important.

“It’s what keeps me awake at night,” he stated. “We have to stop the tops drying out, stop the peat eroding, stop the water flowing down.”

Alan Kearsley-Evans checks the peat on Abergwesyn frequent. Photograph: Ashley Crowden/The Guardian

Peatlands are crucial because of their role in countering the climate emergency by storing carbon. They are additionally very important in assuaging the chance of flooding, as they sluggish the stream of water off the excessive floor and, in locations like Abergwesyn, present essential habitats for birds equivalent to curlew, skylark and golden plover.

But peatlands the world over are drying out because of global warming and factors such as farming practices, together with overgrazing.

At Abergwesyn, the National Trust goals to work with the “commoners”, who for generations have run animals, primarily sheep, over the hills. The belief is eager to plant bushes equivalent to hawthorn, birch and rowan on the slopes to sluggish the water and enhance habitats. Given that it owns an enormous 6,500 hectares, the planting is probably going to take years and there could ultimately be an argument to take a look at strategies getting used in places such as Australia to spread seeds with drones.

There are additionally plans to block ditches on the hilltops that had been dug after the second world conflict to dry out the bottom and supply extra grazing land. Blocking them would, hopefully, make the tops wetter and extra spongey.

A sheep on Abergwesyn common
The National Trust hopes to work with commoners to swap sheep grazing for a mixture of completely different animals. Photograph: Ashley Crowden/The Guardian

But maybe essentially the most very important work is to encourage and assist the commoners to tweak the way in which they function. Discussions are below method to discover out whether or not commoners are ready to commerce in a few of their sheep rights for cattle ones, which might lead to fewer animals on the hills (the proper to 5 sheep may be switched to one cow, for instance) and create a mixture of animals that graze in several methods.

Kearsley-Evans emphasised that the concept was not to clear the tops of sheep however moderately to work intently with commoners to restore the excessive floor. “We’d like to see cattle, ponies and sheep grazing side by side,” he stated. “But this area is so big we can’t do it by ourselves. We have to work together.”

A modest revolution befell this week in Abergwesyn when one farmer, Mark Jones, fitted 10 cows with GPS “no fence” collars, paid for by Natural Resources Wales, as a part of a trial “cattle back” scheme.

The purpose of collars is to hold the animals on a selected patch of the frequent Jones has rights to. If they stray, they obtain a small electrical shock – about 10% of that given by an electrical fence. The collars additionally make them simpler to monitor down in the event that they do wander.

Jones is planning to launch the cattle on to the hills within the subsequent few days. “I think it will help the environment, help the peat,” he stated. One cause farmers may be reluctant to run cattle on the hills is the specter of bovine TB – the commons aren’t fenced and so they don’t want their animals mixing. “These collars will help us stay in touch with our cattle and know where they have been grazing,” he stated.

Roy Samuel, mission supervisor of the Welsh-government funded Three Parishes for the Common Good sustainable management scheme, which is working with the National Trust on a bit of Abergwesyn frequent, stated there have been many hundreds of sheep on the hills however solely a handful of cattle.

Cows fitted with GPS trackers as part of the Abergwesyn trial.
Cows are fitted with GPS trackers as a part of the Abergwesyn trial. Photograph: Elin Jones

“We want to encourage cattle back on to the hill in a controlled manner. The collars seem a good idea because you can’t fence off a bit of the hill, it is too big.” He stated completely different animals grazed in several methods. For instance, sheep barrel via areas of bracken searching for shorter grass, whereas cattle would trample it down and assist hold it below management.

Samuel stated some commoners had been watching the collar mission with curiosity. “Most people want to help. It’s such a beautiful and precious landscape up here.”

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